The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation by Sally Jenkins
Review by C. Douglas Baker
This is absolutely one of the best sports history books I've ever read. Sally Jenkins tells the full history of the Carlisle Indian football team, truly an amazing part of football history.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was opened by Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt in 1879. Pratt had been the Superintendent of a prison for Indians incarcerated during the various outbreaks of violence on the plains where he taught Indians to read and write and believed they were every bit the equal of white men.
When Pratt opened the school, some of the students were sons of the very same men imprisoned by the U.S. government under Pratt.
In fact some of the students were essentially hostages of the U.S. government. Pratt believed that through education, discipline, and adoption of white man's ways, that Indians could fully succeed in the growing American nation.
While horribly paternalistic, it was enlightened for the times, as Pratt firmly believed Native Americans were every bit the equal of white men if given the chance to succeed.
Once the school opened some of the students became enamored of a new game evolving, American football, then dominated by the Ivy League schools, especially Yale and Harvard.
Pratt agreed to put together a team called the Carlisle Indians, and eventually hired Glen "Pop" Warner to be its head coach. The school opened its inaugural football season in 1895, when they went 4-4 despite being robbed by the referees in some games.
Given a very small recruiting pool and the violence of the game in that era, Pop Warner eventually made an undersized, and often undermanned team, competitive with the likes of the dominant Yale, Harvard, and Army teams of the era.
The team soon had one of the most famous athletes in American history, Jim Thorpe. Jenkins does an excellent job of providing a mini-biography of Thorpe in this book and what he meant to the school.
Thorpe was a somewhat eccentric, fun loving, even lazy character but his athletic prowess was amazing. Jenkins does a fantastic job of exploring Thorpe and the way Pop Warner got the best out of him, most of the time.
This book succeeds on many levels. First, it acts as a history of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and the regime of Pratt.
It fully places this amazing football team within the context of its times and what it meant for a team, all Native Americans, to be facing and competing equally with the scions of high society, and military teams, on the football field.
She also puts the football team into the context and mission of the school itself, which was to instill education and discipline among its students, and how the team gave the school an additional reason to be proud.
In fact, the team's successes, and even its character when being cheated against by referees, was proof of Pratt's philosophy and a showcasing of the proud, smart, solid character of its students.
Second, it acts as a biography, of sorts, of Glen "Pop" Warner and his unique coach-player relationship with the often recalcitrant Jim Thorpe. Warner was able to get the best out of Thorpe, and is the man who shepherded him to his gold medals in the Olympics.
Further, Jenkins brings out how Warner was an innovator in the game, loving trick plays, but also devising strategies to take advantage of the smaller but speedier Indian teams against larger foes in an era when smashing into the line of scrimmage and sheer brawn and violence were the norm.
Third, she brings the team and drama to life in some of its biggest accomplishments and its biggest games. Maybe the most storied game of the Carlisle Indian team was its defeat of Army in 1912, only 22 years removed from the Army massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee.
The Carlisle team featured Jim Thorpe, and the Army team included Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Indians won and had a great trick play. Read about it.
Finally, she follows the later careers of the players on this team. Some went on to serve in the U.S. military, including World War I. Others became successful in law or business.
Yet others went home and become militant agitators for Indian rights. Not something Pratt had in mind, but their independence and intelligence was also something instilled in them at Carlisle.
This is a fabulous, well researched, and well written history of a forgotten team. It is a piece of history that goes beyond sports and beyond football. I highly recommend it.